Background

Questioninfo icon

What is the source of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2)?

01 Oct, 2020

Answerinfo icon

The virus was developed during

gain-of-function
research and was released by accident.

(89% probability)

Backgroundinfo icon

When a novel coronavirus was first identified in late 2019, the assumption was that, like most epidemics, it was of a zoonotic source. A few studies, including one published in the prestigious Nature magazine, concluded that the virus is not a laboratory construct.

Today, claiming a non-zoonotic origin is widely considered a conspiracy theory, and indeed many such claims are easily refutable without requiring probabilistic inference.

However, the possibility of a lab escape does require serious examination, especially when considering the proximity of the source to a major coronavirus lab and several unusual findings in the genome of SARS-CoV-2. Due to the complexities of weighing an unlikely lab origin against findings that are unlikely for a zoonotic source, a probabilistic analysis is needed.

This analysis is part of the Rootclaim $100,000 challenge, open to anyone who disagrees with our calculated conclusion. Read more.

Hypotheses Consideredinfo icon

Calculated Resultsinfo icon

Calculated Resultsinfo icon

1

89%
Lab escape:

The virus was developed during

gain-of-function
research and was released by accident.

89%

2

4.5%
Bioweapon:

The virus was genetically engineered as a bioweapon and was deliberately released.

4.5%

3

3.2%
Zoonotic collection:

The virus evolved in nature, and was contracted by virus researchers.

3.2%

4

3.2%
Zoonotic:

The virus evolved in nature and was transmitted to humans

zoonotically
.

3.2%

Starting Pointinfo icon

Initial Probabilities

Name
Initial Likelihoods
info icon
Zoonotic
78%
Lab escape
0.7%
Bioweapon
16%
Zoonotic collection
6%

There have been many more viruses introduced to humanity

zoonotically
than through lab failures. Specifically, there were several major pandemics involving novel coronaviruses from natural origin in recent years. Although there have been no known outbreaks involving any novel viruses (coronavirus or otherwise) that came from research, there have been cases of lab leaks that were caught before causing widespread infections, including one lab leak (of a previously known virus) that led to secondary infections. There are also no known cases of a virus being released deliberately in modern history.

Before examining the specific evidence, the initial estimate of the probabilities of Zoonotic : Zoonotic collection : Bioweapon : Lab escape (based on their respective likelihood of incidents per year) is 78% : 6% : 16% : 0.6%.

Name
Initial Likelihoods
info icon
Zoonotic
78%
Lab escape
0.7%
Bioweapon
16%
Zoonotic collection
6%

Evidenceinfo icon

Effectinfo icon

Contagion and mortality

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
91%
Lab escape
-
0.8%
Bioweapon
÷10
1.8%
Zoonotic collection
-
7%

COVID-19 is more contagious than the typical flu, but not as fatal as recent viruses like MERS or SARS. Overall, it is not particularly well-suited as a traditional bioweapon, and COVID-19 broke out during a relatively peaceful time. This indicates that, if it was used as a bioweapon, it would probably not be released as a method of killing people but for a different purpose such as disrupting the world economy.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
91%
Lab escape
-
0.8%
Bioweapon
÷10
1.8%
Zoonotic collection
-
7%

Outbreak location: Wuhan

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷20
51%
Lab escape
-
9%
Bioweapon
÷15
1.4%
Zoonotic collection
÷2
38%

The COVID-19 outbreak was first recorded in Wuhan, one of the larger cities in China. Large cities are often the initial breakout sites of zoonotic pandemics, but in that sense Wuhan is no more likely than any other city. It also isn't a particularly desirable target for releasing a bioweapon. 

However, Wuhan stands out for housing the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of only a few labs engaged in

gain-of-function
research.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷20
51%
Lab escape
-
9%
Bioweapon
÷15
1.4%
Zoonotic collection
÷2
38%

Virus sources near Wuhan

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
68%
Lab escape
÷2
6%
Bioweapon
÷2
0.9%
Zoonotic collection
÷2
25%

There are no obvious natural sources for COVID-19 in the Wuhan area (Hubei province). The most similar coronavirus is found among bats that don’t live nearby, and scientists have not been able to pinpoint the exact point where SARS-CoV-2 transferred to humans. On the other hand, the initial cluster of cases in the Wuhan wet market is significantly more likely if the virus originated

zoonotically
.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
68%
Lab escape
÷2
6%
Bioweapon
÷2
0.9%
Zoonotic collection
÷2
25%

Chimera

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷8
46%
Lab escape
-
32%
Bioweapon
-
4.9%
Zoonotic collection
÷8
17%

SARS-CoV-2 has parts in common with two different viruses, but those individual viruses do not share these similarities with each other, indicating it is a

chimera
. Such chimeras are found both in nature and in labs that conduct
gain-of-function
research. However, this specific
chimera
seems less likely to combine in nature, while the
WIV
is known to have access to both viruses.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷8
46%
Lab escape
-
32%
Bioweapon
-
4.9%
Zoonotic collection
÷8
17%

Furin cleavage

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷8
13%
Lab escape
-
72%
Bioweapon
-
11%
Zoonotic collection
÷8
4.7%

SARS-CoV-2 has a

furin cleavage site
- an amino acid sequence that causes the protease furin to cut the virus in a way that facilitates its entry into cells. This feature is missing in related coronaviruses, and its placement in the genetic code looks like an insertion rather than a mutation, making it less likely to develop in nature.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
÷8
13%
Lab escape
-
72%
Bioweapon
-
11%
Zoonotic collection
÷8
4.7%

Already well adapted

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
7%
Lab escape
×2
79%
Bioweapon
×2
12%
Zoonotic collection
-
2.6%

It appears that there was one index case of COVID-19, rather than multiple jumps from nature to humans, as was the case in many other pandemics. Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 was already well adapted for human infection from the first known cases.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
7%
Lab escape
×2
79%
Bioweapon
×2
12%
Zoonotic collection
-
2.6%

WIV lab procedures

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
3.8%
Lab escape
×2
87%
Bioweapon
-
7%
Zoonotic collection
×2
2.8%

There is some evidence regarding lax security and procedures at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including other coronaviruses that seem to have escaped the confines of the lab.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
3.8%
Lab escape
×2
87%
Bioweapon
-
7%
Zoonotic collection
×2
2.8%

Infections at WIV

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
×1
3.8%
Lab escape
×1
87%
Bioweapon
×1
7%
Zoonotic collection
×1
2.8%

A U.S. intelligence report showed that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought hospital care in November 2019, though the exact illness is not known. However, the

WIV
reported no COVID-19 infections or serological evidence of previous COVID-19 infections among their researchers.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
×1
3.8%
Lab escape
×1
87%
Bioweapon
×1
7%
Zoonotic collection
×1
2.8%

WIV disassociation

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
2%
Lab escape
×2
92%
Bioweapon
-
3.5%
Zoonotic collection
×1.5
2.3%

The

WIV
explicitly stated that they were not working on SARS-CoV-2 prior to the outbreak.

However, on December 30, when Dr. Shi Zheng-Li was informed of the COVID-19 outbreak, changes were made to her bat virus database, making it look like she was trying to dissociate her lab's research from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Then, in January 2020,

WIV
researchers published a paper claiming to have found a previously unknown coronavirus named RaTG13 that was a 96% match with SARS-CoV-2.

But RaTG13 is a new name given to BtCoV/4991, a coronavirus that the

WIV
discovered (along with many other viruses) when they examined a bat cave after six miners contracted a pneumonia-like disease and three died.

This, and other anomalies surrounding

WIV
’s handling of RaTG13, are indicative of attempts to minimize
WIV
involvement.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
2%
Lab escape
×2
92%
Bioweapon
-
3.5%
Zoonotic collection
×1.5
2.3%

Chinese response

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
1.4%
Lab escape
×1.5
94%
Bioweapon
-
2.4%
Zoonotic collection
×1.5
2.3%

The official Chinese response was not transparent, though not particularly surprising even if the virus developed

zoonotically
. They restricted WHO access, destroyed samples, and withheld information, which might be construed as an attempt to hide evidence that could be used to blame China for COVID-19. Additionally, they sent Major General Chen Wei from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences to oversee COVID-19 efforts at the
WIV
, which could potentially indicate the involvement of a bioweapon, but it is probably immaterial.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
1.4%
Lab escape
×1.5
94%
Bioweapon
-
2.4%
Zoonotic collection
×1.5
2.3%

Missing evidence

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
3.2%
Lab escape
÷2.4
89%
Bioweapon
÷1.2
4.5%
Zoonotic collection
÷1.7
3.2%

If the COVID-19 pandemic was the result of a virus developed in a lab - and got out either as the result of an accident or released on purpose as a bioweapon - there are certain pieces of evidence that could have emerged by now, but so far did not. 

 

  1. No whistleblowers have given first hand testimony or exposed evidence of any link between COVID-19 and a lab, even though some doctors and researchers have spoken out about other incidents where they believed that China mishandled information regarding COVID-19.

  2. There were no published records of SARS-CoV-2 in virus databases or research grants.

  3. Wuhan was not immediately cordoned off when the first cases appeared.

Name

Effectinfo icon

Updated Likelihoods

Zoonotic
-
3.2%
Lab escape
÷2.4
89%
Bioweapon
÷1.2
4.5%
Zoonotic collection
÷1.7
3.2%

Discussioninfo icon

userIcon
user icon
Isaac
Jan 7, 2023 at 6:37 PM
You should come to Manifold and bet on this :) https://manifold.markets/IsaacKing/did-covid19-come-from-a-laboratory
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Rootclaim
Jan 16, 2023 at 10:06 AM
We may indeed start getting involved in prediction markets soon.
user avatar
Josh Rothstein
Jan 4, 2023 at 8:35 AM
Furin cleavage sites have been found to naturally occur in coronaviruses. What is stated above is incorrect. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33340798/ https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2211107119
logo icon
Rootclaim
Jan 4, 2023 at 8:49 PM
Note that we mention “related coronaviruses”, not all coronaviruses. In any case, the cleavage site itself is not given any weight in the analysis, but only the specific way in which it appears.
user avatar
Josh Rothstein
Jan 4, 2023 at 8:30 AM
The virus very well may have been developed in a lab, but it was almost certainly not during “gain-of-function research.” The term “gain-of-function research” is wholly dependent on its definition. Rand Paul’s definition (study results in GoF) vs the NIH’s definition (study goal is GoF) are fairly different.
user avatar
Josh Rothstein
Jan 5, 2023 at 7:50 PM
Looks like you're using the NIH's definition, of which there weren't any known projects in Wuhan that would be classified as "gain-of-function."
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Rootclaim
Jan 4, 2023 at 8:49 PM
You can hover over the definition of gain-of-function in our analysis to see the definition we use.
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Doryphore
Dec 10, 2022 at 10:39 PM
I'd like to challenge Rootclaim on this in a debate.
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Rootclaim
Dec 16, 2022 at 1:59 PM
Hi Doryphore, If you'd like to challenge our analysis in a debate, please read through the challenge guidelines (https://www.rootclaim.com/rootclaim-challenge), and then contact us here: info@rootclaim.com
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Ryan44
Oct 21, 2022 at 12:04 AM
New pre-print: "Endonuclease fingerprint indicates a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2" https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.10.18.512756